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An interview

I was interviewed this week in the Norwegian edition of Computerworld Magazine about my involvement in the demoscene, and the Norwegian demoscene history exhibit “Pixlar” currently on display in Oslo. The interview is more focused on what employers should be looking for when recruiting.

After I posted it on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve been repeatedly asked if there is an english translation somewhere — unfortunately there wasn’t, so I went ahead and translated it myself. I also took the liberty to add in a few details lost from the original interview and to the final text as published.

The art of code
by Kenneth Christensen

Originally published in Computerworld on the 21st of February, 2012.
Freely translated to English.

Nobody challenges and explores technology like demoscene artists.


Illustration by Fairfax/Torkell Berntsen

“The art corridor” at Oslo Central station in the capital of Norway has since January had a very special exhibit on display. The exhibit, named Pikslar (translates to “Pixels”) showcases examples of digital art and culture from the last 20 years, including retro computers like the Commodore Amiga 500.

The exhibit shows passers-by a glimpse into a world unknown to most. The demoscene is a subculture for people with a higher than average interest in finding creative uses for computer technology, and utilizes their exceptional technical skills to push the limits of what’s possible.

The real hackers

Demosceners are driven by the desire to make the computer do amazing things, says Bent Stamnes.

– Take the classic example of the Commodore 64. Turn it on, and it does nothing. It just sits there, waiting for you to tell it what to do.

The blank screen and the blinking cursor was an irresistible invitation to a world of technical wizardry and skill for those receptible to the charm of the little breadbox. Stamnes is part of the team behind the Pikslar exhibit, and has been an active demoscener since he was 11 years old, making music by stitching together beep.exe commands in .BAT-files under DOS. Today Stamnes works as a manager for a software development company in the telecom industry.

– I became a part of the demoscene in 1989, just as the Norwegian demoscene came into infancy. Now I’m 34 and I’m still active.

The first group he was in was called MAD (Microchips After Dark, a nod to the Danish 80s rock-band D.A.D – Disneyland After Dark), but these days he admits to coding way less and taking on the role of producer of demos, in addition to making music for them.

Self-taught enthusiasts

Most of the people who take an active part in the demoscene have taught themselves the skills needed. The type of technical interrest typically found in demosceners is something in the blood, says Stamnes. – You either have it or you don’t. In a professional setting, he often looks for people who lives and breathes computer code.

– I am an employer now, so knowing what to look for in people is really handy. It’s pretty easy to see if potential new employees are of the kind that just wants a job, any job, or someone who is born to code. That’s the difference between an enthusiast and a consultant.

Demosceners often have a completely different perspective on problem solving than those in the IT-business just there to punch the clock and go home.

– Demosceners are often exceptionally good at coming up with solutions in a macro perspective, something that’s both rare and and very important at times. These people have faced — and solved — completely unique problems. It is often a strong advantage to have such developers on your team, someone who dares to ask the right (and often unpopular) questions.

Huge advantages

If you’re looking for a job in creative businesses, such as advertising, film or game development, it’s often a strong advantage to have something to show, in addition to your regular resumé.

– There’s basically no creative business recruiter who doesn’t know what the demoscene is or what talent comes out of it.

To have a demo in your portfolion not only shows that you have the technical know-how, but also that you find creative ways to apply it through a passion for technology.

– A geniune hacker has this glow, this natural instinct about technology. For them it’s almost unbearable not knowing how something works, and at the same time: optimizing it and making it better.

The social aspects

The demoscene is very social, and the cliché of the bespectacled nerd in his parents basement is completely incorrect. A common interest in technology, graphics and music combined with the desire to meet, share and aquire new knowledge, is far more descriptive of the culture.

– Being social is very important. There are demoscene events almost every week somewhere in the world, often having people fly in from other countries just to attend for a few days. We talk, code, make demos and enjoy ourselves.

Having likeminded people around you to share your demos with is the whole point of the subculture. Getting immediate (and often brutally honest) feedback is almost addictive. This group of people can easily separate the good from the bad in a heartbeat.

– It’s a very knowledgeable and closely knit community. You learn a lot just by being around such creative people.

The contacts and relationships forged in the demoscene lasts your entire life.

– It’s very enriching. The contacts and relationships forged in the demoscene lasts your entire life. If you’ve competed head-to-head with your hardest competitior (which is often your best friends as well), you never forget it.

A lot of demsoceners naturally end up in creative businesses, often in larger corporations such as game developers or advertising.

A top-tip for recruiters: look for people with demoscene experience.

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